Toronto City Hall is located at 100 Queen St W (at Bay St on the northwest corner) in downtown Toronto. It’s the headquarters for Canada’s largest city and houses Toronto’s municipal government.
Before New City Hall
The area that City Hall occupies was once known as “The Ward.” It was home to many newcomers, refugees and migrants to Toronto.
In 1947, taxpayers voted to expropriate the properties residing on Queen St W, between Bay St and Chestnut St (when it intersected with Queen St W). Some of the lands were already city-operated parking lots and home to the magnificent Registry of Deeds and Land Titles; however, several other buildings on the block needed to be demolished. They included Shea’s Hippodrome, the Manning Chambers building, hotels, restaurants and more. The budget for the new City Hall was $13 million.
The Initial Design
In 1955, three of Toronto’s leading architectural firms collaborated on a design for new City Hall. Commissioned by the City, Marani & Morris, Mathers & Haldenby and Shore & Moffat were all known for their conservative architectural style. Their proposal included a civic square with reflecting pools leading to a 3-storey U-shaped building with a tall, rectangular office tower behind.
Students Changed the Course of City Hall’s Architecture
When the plans for new City Hall were released, architecture students at the University of Toronto thought it to be “dull and uninteresting and indistinguishable from… insurance buildings.” Their opinions were printed in the student newspaper “The Varsity,” and the City’s daily newspapers picked up the story. When it came to the design of Toronto’s new City Hall, that changed everything.
The Design Competition
Professor of Architectural Design at the University of Toronto, Eric Arthur, together with his students, came up with the idea of an international design competition. Professor Arthur convinced City Council to carry out the competition. He then organized and became the chairman of the five-person architect judging panel. The jury included Sir William Holford, Charles Edward “Ned” Pratt, Ernesto Rogers, Eero Saarinen and Gordon Stephenson.
Mayor Nathan Phillips said, “An eminent jury will select the winner, and the City will accept its decision.” The first prize was $25,000 with $1 million in fees and a budget increased to $18 million.
With an April 1958 deadline, 510 entries were received from 42 countries. Design models were set up in the Horticultural Building at the CNE, and the materials took up the entire space. It took six days for the judges to narrow it down to eight finalists.
The winning design was by Viljo Revell and Associates from Helsinki, Finland. The announcement made front-page news. Its style was fresh, modern and futuristic.
Sod Turning & Construction
Mayor Nathan Phillips turned the first sod in November 1961 for City Hall, Toronto’s fourth building. In recognition of the work he had done advocating for the building of new City Hall, the square was named in his honour.
Construction began, and the project’s contractor was Anglin Norcross Ontario Limited. Assisting Viljo Revell was Toronto’s modernist architectural firm of John B Parkin Associates, with John C Parkin as the principal in charge during construction.
The Time Capsule
While most buildings have a cornerstone, new City Hall is definitely not a traditionally styled structure. A year into construction, a time capsule was sealed into a cylinder near the Council Chamber’s foundation column.
The capsule contains microfilm copies of three of the City’s newspapers showing the design competition announcement (dated September 26 and 27, 1958), copies of the top 5 designs, including the winner, microfilm copies of the Patriot and Farmer’s Monitor of 1834 (the year of the City’s incorporation), coins from 1833, 1844, 1899 and 1962 when Toronto’s City Halls were built, a map of the City, brochures, stamps and more.
The Passing of Viljo Revell
In 1964, Mr Revell passed away suddenly at the age of 54. He did not see the completion of Toronto’s new City Hall. One of Mr Revell’s associates, Heikki Castren and Company, and the Canadian partner firm John B Parkin Associates completed the project.
In September 1965, Governor-General George Vanier opened Toronto’s modern City Hall to a crowd of 14,000 people. City Council were escorted by the civic guard from Old City Hall across Bay St through to the ceremonies in Nathan Phillips Square. There was a ribbon-cutting, fireworks and flypasts by Royal Canadian Air Force jets.
During speeches, the sound of steel clanging could be heard as work was still being completed on City Hall. Dignitaries included Prime Minister Lester B Pearson, Premier John Robarts, Mayor Philip Givens and previous Mayor Nathan Phillips. There was also a tribute to architect Viljo Revell, whose wife sat in the front row.
Prime Minister Pearson said, “But as an old citizen of Toronto – I should say a former citizen – I must shed a tear for the old City Hall, which like the Armoury around the corner must become a sacrifice to progress.” While there were plans to tear down magnificent Old City Hall, thankfully, that changed.
There are four main areas to contemporary Toronto City Hall. They include Nathan Phillips Square, the Podium, Council Chamber and the Towers.
Nathan Phillips Square is a large outdoor public square and hosts many activities and events. It features a reflecting pool in the warmer months, which turns into an ice-skating rink in the winter. The Freedom Arches over the pool contain a piece of the Berlin wall. There’s a sculpture called The Archer by Henry Moore, a theatre stage, the Peace Garden and the Sculpture Court.
The Podium is the two-storey structure and the public entryway into City Hall. Visitors enter through one of the three entrances on the Podium’s south side into a large rotunda that features teak elements and a Carrara marble floor. The foundation column in the centre of the rotunda supports the Council Chamber. The hollow concrete column measures 6 m or 19 ft across, and 1 m or 3 ft thick, and at its base is the Hall of Memory. The Office of the Mayor and Councilors Offices are located on the second floor.
Council Chamber, a low, broad dome upon an inverted reflection of itself, sits on a central column over the Podium. It has seating for 300 people. The dome weighs 4,000 tons and is supported by 23 pairs of V-shaped concrete struts on its windows exterior.
The curved Towers have windowless back walls clad in preclad ribbed concrete with marble inserts and inner stainless steel and glass curtain walls. The Towers frame the dome of the Council Chamber.
In the end, the cost of new Toronto City Hall was $31 million. The design received international acclaim and launched Toronto into a modern era. The complex received heritage status designation in 1976. The unique and striking style of the landmark is, to this day, as modern as it was more than 55 years ago.
Fast Facts About the Monumental Structure
- City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square reside on 12.75 acres.
- The Council Chambers dome is 46 m or 155 ft in diameter and 12 m or 40 ft from the floor to the highest point.
- The East Tower is 27 floors and 99 m or 325 ft in height. The top floor features an observation deck; however, it is no longer open to the public.
- The West Tower is 20 floors and 79 m or 260 ft in height.
- Materials used during construction included 91,000 cubic yards of concrete, 9,000 tons of reinforcing steel, 94,000 square feet of glass, 170,000 square feet of precast marble, 20,000 tons of precast concrete panels, 306 km or 180 miles of electrical wire, 13.6 km or 8.5 miles of snow melting cables and 11,000 light fixtures.
- There are facilities for over 2,600 civic staff with a total gross floor of nearly 817,000 square feet.
- There are 1,100 offices and auxiliary rooms, 17 elevators and three levels of underground parking with a capacity for 2,400 vehicles.
- The Reflecting Pool/Ice Rink is 55.5 m or 182 ft long by 30 m by 98 ft wide.
- A ceremonial ramp on the east side of Nathan Phillips Square leads to the roof of the Podium.
An Interesting Article & Interview
In a 2010 Globe and Mail article, Lisa Rochon noted that the panel of judges initially rejected Revell’s scheme. Famed architect Eero Saarinen, one of the judges and a Finnish colleague of Viljo Revell, arrived in Toronto a day late for judging. He pulled Mr Revell’s submission from the pile of rejected entries and talked the other judges into his choice.
In the article, Lisa Rochon also interviewed Bengt Lundsten, an associate architect of Viljo Revell. Mr Lundsten, who was 82 at the time, was asked how the idea came about. He said, “The curved towers came up very quickly. There were three of us (Bengt Lundsten, Seppo Valjus and Heikki Castren) in the office together, as we always worked in the evening. Viljo was away. That first evening we had the idea of the curved towers. And the next morning, we presented this idea to Viljo, and he accepted it.” One of the architects later noticed the same kind of semi-circular shapes were in the shadow of a curved lamp. They made photographs of it.
Did You Know?
- Nathan Phillips was Toronto’s first Jewish Mayor. Mr Phillips served on City Council for 36 years. Eight of those years were as Mayor, from 1955 to 1962.
- Over 1.5 million people visit Nation Phillips Square each year.
- In 1966, after a public outcry over the $100,000 cost of The Archer statue, Mayor Givens successfully completed a private funding campaign for the abstract artwork.
- In the 1960s, visiting dignitaries would be driven up the ramp on the east side of Nathan Phillips Square to the roof of the Podium. There they would be dropped off right at Chamber Council. The Podium roof is now a garden.
- There are permanent art installations inside Toronto City Hall. David Partridges’s Metropolis is on the main floor, also known as “The Wall of Nails” created using 100,000 common nails. On the second floor are Views to a City by Brian Kipping and John McKinnon made with copper and glass mosaic tiles as well as Anchestoral Figure with Spirit Helpers by Norval Morrisseau.
- In 2017, in commemoration of Canada’s 22nd National Aboriginal Day, five Indigenous flags were installed near the southeast corner of Nathan Phillips Square. The flags honour the Mississaugas of the New Credit, Haudenosaunee (Six Nations of the Grand River Territory), Huron-Wendat, Métis Nation and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
- Professor Eric Arthur was an architectural advocate saving many of Toronto’s beautiful old buildings. He wrote the book Toronto, No Mean City (later updated by Stephen A Otto).
- Articles on Toronto’s previous City Hall structures including Old City Hall (third building), St Lawrence Market (which contains the second building) and St Lawrence Hall (the site of the first building).
Toronto City Hall Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 100 Queen St W
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 100 Queen St W
- City of Toronto: A Step Forward in Time: Toronto’s New City Hall Series
- City of Toronto: Features of Nathan Phillips Square
- Video: City of Toronto: Virtual Tour of Toronto City Hall
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Dec 6, 1956, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 26, 1958, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 2, 1962, pg 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 15, 2003, pg M4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 6, 2005, pg A25
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 18, 2010, pg R7
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & University of Calgary